The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has allowed facilities at the UK’s primary site for managing threats from animal diseases to deteriorate. As it transforms the site, Defra will need to manage several risks. Failure to do so could limit the UK’s ability to respond effectively to a major disease outbreak, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

Animal diseases have major impacts on the UK, as demonstrated by outbreaks such as Foot and Mouth disease and Avian Influenza. Defra leads government policy on animal health in England and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) is responsible for investigating and responding to emerging animal disease outbreaks. APHA also undertakes long-term research into animal diseases and supports trade in plants, animals and associated products.

APHA’s Weybridge site (Weybridge) is the UK’s primary centre for managing threats from animal diseases, but its condition has been allowed to deteriorate to a point where some facilities are not fit for purpose. Ageing buildings need major repair and replacement, and a lack of laboratory capacity is negatively affecting APHA’s work. Defra estimated in 2019 that the ongoing decline of Weybridge could lead to a total loss of capability within the next five to 10 years. This would leave the UK vulnerable to future animal disease outbreaks.

Defra has under-invested in Weybridge, and the current short-term ‘patch and repair’ approach is not sustainable. Investment to update facilities at Weybridge largely stopped following the 2008 financial crisis. There is also a large maintenance backlog. An estimated £197 million of investment between 2020 and 2025 is required to maintain the site. For the 11 years from 2025-26, Defra expects its critical works programme to cost, on average, around £80 million a year.

Defra took several years to set up the Science Capability in Animal Health programme (the Programme), which will involve a major transformation of Weybridge. This includes constructing a new science laboratory hub, upgrading infrastructure, and transforming the way the site operates. Defra identified the need for substantial investment in urgent maintenance in 2015 but carrying out this maintenance highlighted that significantly more work was required. The Programme Business Case was agreed by HM Treasury in November 2021.

Defra estimates that the Programme will cost £2.8 billion. The Department initially estimated that £1.2 billion would be needed but increased the figure in its 2021 business case after carrying out more detailed cost estimates and widening the Programme’s scope. While the latest estimate reflects the risks in the Programme better, there remains substantial uncertainty around costs, as would be expected in a programme at this early stage.

HM Treasury has approved funding of £1.2 billion, but has not formally agreed to fund the Programme at the revised cost estimate of £2.8 billion. Failure to secure sufficient funding would limit the benefits of the Programme. HM Treasury will scrutinise the next stage of the Programme Business Case in June 2024. Following this, Defra will begin procuring the main construction contracts, and expects the main construction work to start in 2027. 

Defra has made efforts to learn from similar programmes and projects. For example, engaging with other departments, developing a network of contacts with experience of major projects, and learning from similar international sites. Defra has also made good progress in establishing governance structures within the Programme, including a clear board structure with regular reporting from programme workstreams.

The Programme is high risk due to a range of factors, including the specialist nature of the construction work that is required and the complexity of managing the Programme while maintaining the business-as-usual operations of APHA. Defra has put in place processes to manage the Programme’s risks but needs to do more to integrate this with risk management across the entire Weybridge site.

The NAO has identified four risks that Defra will need to manage during the Programme’s planning phase, which runs to 2024:

  • Setting unrealistic costs and schedule estimates. Best practice is to express estimates at this early stage as a range, but Defra has used single point estimates in its 2021 business case. This could lead to unrealistic expectations among stakeholders and decision-making being dominated by fixed completion dates.
  • Not having the right staff. Failure to recruit the necessary skills (such as specialist technical and engineering skills) could impact on the delivery of the Programme and increase costs.
  • Ineffective arrangements with contractors. Failure to ensure contractors are working together with appropriate delivery incentives could result in higher programme costs.
  • Ineffective management of dependencies. For example, it will be important to manage dependencies between the construction elements of the Programme and the transformation elements.

The NAO recommends that Defra prioritises producing a strategy for the long-term management of Weybridge within the next year. Defra should also demonstrate that it is continuing to learn lessons from across government and is ensuring that contractual incentives are targeted at reducing costs and delivering the Programme to schedule.

“Defra has allowed the Weybridge site to deteriorate to a point where major redevelopment is now urgently required. Considering the site’s importance to the UK, it has taken Defra a long time to set up a programme to redevelop it. The Department has recently put in place many of the right measures to manage the redevelopment successfully, but it will need to navigate many risks to deliver a site that can protect the UK against animal disease outbreaks and demonstrate value for taxpayers.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

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Improving the UK’s science capability for managing animal diseases

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About the NAO

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and reports on the value for money of how public money has been spent.

In 2020, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £926 million.

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